Too often, ‘school choice’ is no choice at all

Another Sunday brings another article advocating for school choice in Rochester from our friends in the  suburbs.  Writing in the Oct. 2 Democrat and Chronicle, business columnist Pat Burke again decries the lack of progress in city schools and calls for a more competitive model to ensure that all urban children receive the education guaranteed to them by the state constitution.

His solution, as always, is more charters and school choice. Here is what I want to know? Why is the solution always choice as long as families and students never have the right to choose a school outside the city?

Let’s review some statistics that we have heard time and again. These are from the Bush center (Yes GW Bush) cited in the Atlantic. The report has a nifty interactive map on how American school districts rank against countries and districts around the world.

To understand the percentages, remember that 50 percent is the worldwide average—so half the students are above and half below that mark. Here are three suburban districts as examples:

School District Math Competency Reading Competency High Need Students
Brighton          65%            82%      8%
Fairport          59%            72%      9%
Pittsford          76%            86%      3%
Rochester          13%            28%        83%

Just eyeballing the statistics it is obvious that RCSD students are among both the poorest and poorest achieving in the world in Math and Reading.  You can draw your own conclusions about the other districts, but I wonder if teachers are better in Brighton and Pittsford and if they would be just as good in Rochester?

The achievement gap between children of top earners and those from poor families has increased 40 percent in the past two decades.  Children living in poor neighborhoods who not reading at grade level by third grade are nine times less likely to graduate from high school on time.

However, here is what the research tells us works. (See: “We Already Know How to Close the Achievement Gap” Jim Shelton, Sept. 29, 2015 Education Week)

  • A secure start to life through parental education and access to high quality pre-school at an early age
  • Money invested in nurse/family partnerships. The Rand study cited in the article found that every dollar invested in nurse visits produced $5.70 in benefits.
  • Intensive tutoring in social and cognitive skills and math for at risk youth.

But the key to figuring out ways to aid poor families was the finding that place and poverty are linked. 

Children growing up in poverty and with others in poverty have significantly worse life outcomes than their peers. In the Moving to Opportunity experiments, cited in Shelton’s Education Week piece,  children under 13 who moved to less poor neighborhoods earned 31 percent more as adults

Unlike our competitors in Canada, Finland, South Korea and other progressive countries we choose to warehouse our poor kids in schools where everyone else is poor which condemns them to low achievement because of where they live and the income of their neighbors.

So when advocates talk about choice and competition, what choices do they think poor children should have?  Only the 700 best students chosen for the urban-suburban program have the right to move. The rest have no choice but to stay. If they had the option  to go to school with middle class kids that would be a real choice. Or if our suburban districts  would take 100 kindergartners by lottery—not by the draft—that would offer a real choice for poor city families. And what if the charters would promise to educate every kid they took in, agreeing never to throw them back to the public schools when they present too big a challenge? That, too, would give poor families a choice.

Competition and choice will not wipe out decades of neglect, discriminatory housing practices, biases and prejudice. The business capital model that views urban schools as competitive markets in which some schools rise and others fall based on their test scores is a short term fix not favored by any of our global competitors. The only viable solution is our continued efforts by GS4A and other organizations that are intent on creating magnet and regional schools and enhanced opportunities for children mired in poverty. It really is our only choice.

Jeff Linn is the chairman of the department of educational administration at the College at Brockport and a member of the GS4A steering committee.